Fan Xian rode on his horse. His buttocks felt a bit uncomfortable. He couldn’t shake the sense of familiarity as he thought about this Second Prince. He understood very well he should not talk too much during this first meeting. Matters regarding the palace treasury shouldn’t be brought up either. This was simply a casual meeting.
Brushing aside a willow branch that was in the way, he asked Li Hongcheng, "The Second Prince just wanted to see me?"
Li Hongcheng answered, "He’s one of your admirers, and it just so happens you married Princess Chen. So, as your brother-in-law, he wanted to see what this ‘Poetry Sage’ was like."
That caught Fan Xian off guard. Wondering if that was all, he shook his head. Moments later, he suddenly sighed, "Why does Second Prince look so familiar to me?"
Li Hongcheng had known Fan Xian for many months; he knew Fan Xian had a gentle demeanor, but that he was also resolute on the inside. Other than the occasional bouts of insanity, he put in effort to keep himself composed. Seeing him being caught off guard like this, Li Hongcheng said, "You shouldn’t have met him."
Fan Xian could only smile and shake his head. While the Second Prince was handsome, he was no Sister Lin, and Fan Xian was not interested in the same sex. As to why he couldn’t forget the Second Prince, Fan Xian smiled shyly.
Li Hongcheng was staring at him the whole time. After staring for a while, he said, "I know why you find Second Prince familiar."
Fan Xian opened his eyes wide. "Why?"
Li Hongcheng pretended to be disgusted. "Because, sometimes, you both make that shy and effeminate smile."
Fan Xian was startled and immediately stopped grinning. "Like I was doing just now?"
Looking at Fan Xian’s flawless face, Li Hongcheng suddenly felt a chill, "Your demeanors are similar too; truly effeminate."
"Nonsense." Fan Xian didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But suddenly, he had a change in thought. Perhaps… Second Prince and he were really alike in those regards. He shook his head and got rid of the question lingering in his heart. He made the same smile again to disgust Crown Prince Jing once more before waving his horsewhip and galloping back to the capital.
On the way back, he took the path along the river. The spring wind caressed his face, and willow branches were also coming at him. Fan Xian was too lazy to duck, so he moved his zhenqi to his face and literally shocked the incoming branches away. He felt lively on top of his horse.
Having distanced himself from Crown Prince Jing and his guards, Fan Xian’s horse began to tire. So he slowed down and gazed across the water. He found himself having arrived at where pleasure boats gathered. Far in the distance, there was one that was gathering dust. Compared to the other boats teeming with guests, that one looked exceptionally desolate.
Fan Xian squinted as he guessed which boat that one was. That boat once had the most popular girl in the capital. To think it had fallen to such a state, Fan Xian couldn’t help but remember Si Lili who was still imprisoned. After the spring examination, Qing would release her to Northern Qi. Coincidentally, since he would be the envoy this time, he didn’t know what their next meeting would be like.
In the prison, he had utilized drugs, words, and psychological warfare in order to wring out an answer from that girl, and discovered that the one behind his assassination attempt was Wu Bo'an. At the time, he vowed to let her go without the intention of keeping his word, but now things had become much more complicated.
He smiled gently, in the way Li Hongcheng described. He thought he should follow through with his promise.
The sound of hurried hooves came up behind him. Li Hongcheng had also shook his guards and followed ahead. The two riders stopped at the same spot and both stared across the water. Occasionally they took a glance at that one desolate sp
ot on the water.
Moments later, Li Hongcheng said gently, "The night you beat up Guo Baokun, you drank with me over there."
Fan Xian smiled. "We also spent a night there."
"What’s this?" Li Hongcheng gave Fan Xian a look. "Feeling pity? Your status is different from mine. Never mind Si Lili in prison; even the other girls out there right now – if you go out every single night, the palace would probably send out some guards right away to give you a beating."
Fan Xian smiled sheepishly, "How could I think about that? I just felt something watching that one boat."
"Wu Bo'an is not with your father-in-law." Li Hongcheng thought Fan Xian didn’t know that, so he quietly reminded him."
"I know. He’s with Eldest Princess. But since she’s not in the capital, I’m not going to bother thinking about all of that."
"Don’t forget that Eldest Princess is on very good terms with Empress Dowager – to the point of being adored. Also… in recent years, Eldest Princess has trusted her very much." Li Hongcheng looked at Fan Xian silently, as if wanting him to take a hint.
Fan Xian smiled, "Whatever’s on your mind, just say it. Second Prince and I met for the first time. Naturally there would be something that shouldn’t be said. The reason I left the guards was to speak to you in private."
The two horses proceeded slowly, their heads occasionally touched in a display of affection. Li Hongcheng, parting a willow branch away from his face, said lightly, "After you return from Northern Qi, you will probably be put in charge of the palace treasury. Both the East Palace and Second Prince need you. I believe you know that."
Fan Xian smiled without saying a word and listened.
"The only reason those in the East Palace are being friendly with you now is because of Eldest Princess’s absence. While I don’t know why she despises you so, I do know that a thousand of you isn’t worth a single sentence from her. You shouldn’t trust those in the East Palace." Li Hongcheng said very seriously, "You and I are friends. I want to remind you, if there comes a day you fall – whether or not it's from public or private matters – I hope you will fall to our side."
He pointed at a single hill on the other side of the river. It was divided in two by a forest, looking like the Chinese character for two.
"What a coincidence." Fan Xian followed Li Hongcheng’s finger and looked. "Waiting in line is stupid enough already, Hongcheng. I advise you not to wait in line too early."
"it's not a coincidence. That’s Second Prince’s estate." Li Hongcheng smiled, "My father said similar things. But there are always things one must do."
Fan Xian shook his head in disagreement. "After seeing Second Prince today, I have this strange feeling. How come he wouldn’t settle for a safe position as the brother of the emperor, like how King Jing did?"
Upon hearing Fan Xian mention King Jing, Li Hongcheng’s gaze turned to ice, and his usual smile disappeared. "There are no private matters in the royal family. Many things can’t be avoided even if one wants to. Do you remember how the previous emperor, my grandfather, attained the throne? The two other successors to the throne were assassinated on the same day. The capital was such a bloody place back then – can you even imagine? If you were to go back to the past, would you ask the two why they wouldn’t back down?"
Fan Xian felt a chill in his heart and forced a smile. "Back then, the nation had just been founded. It was unlike the current period of peace. If Second Prince is willing to give up, I don’t think anything would happen in East Palace. King Jing spends his days planting flowers; isn’t he quite happy? I can see that Second Prince enjoys studying. Why can’t he follow your father’s example?"
"You’ve seen His Majesty, and also Eldest Princess. My Lord Father ranks second, but he’s already an old man." Li Hongcheng gave a fake smile. "Would giving up really bring a happy ending? My Lord Father always seems to have some regret. Although I don’t know why, it must be due to all of the rotten things going on in the royal family."
In fact, Crown Prince Jing was wrong about why King Jing took up planting flowers.
Fan Xian frowned. "But you shouldn’t follow Second Prince so closely. No matter how you look at it, he’s the least likely one." Fan Xian was now close enough to Li Hongcheng to be able to speak so frankly.
Li Hongcheng blanked out a bit, then his usual smile returned to him as he knew Fan Xian was treating him as a true friend. Moved, he said, "When our parents place dessert in front of their children, we must first express that we want to have it. That way, when our parents allocate food later, they'll think of us first."
Fan Xian smiled, "So Second Prince had been showing he wants to eat."
"Correct." Li Hongcheng looked away from Fan Xian. He looked toward Cang Mountain in the far distance. "The previous emperor was fortunate to have only two sons. The current emperor is fortunate too, with only three sons. But… who knows what trouble the Eldest Prince will cause when he comes back? That’s why Second Prince must make the first move, show his intentions, and obtain all the power he can."
"I still don’t understand why you chose him."
"It's simple." Li Hongcheng smiled at Fan Xian’s question. "I don’t dislike him."
Fan Xian raised an eyebrow. He couldn’t fully believe what he heard. He emotionlessly stared at Crown Prince Jing, who was smiling warmly. Fan Xian did not seek to be free from worldly affairs. He knew there were many things he could not avoid, which was why he never had the intention to in the first place.
Living as a man, "live freely" was his motto—of course, that process would most likely involve more things.
Before they entered the city, Li Hongcheng asked Fan Xian to go to certain restaurant. Naturally, Fan Xian was too lazy to oblige and bid him farewell. Before that, the prince said to him, "Second Prince had asked to see you first because, after the examination, you won't be able to escape this favor."
Fan Xian was slightly shocked as he picked up on the hidden meaning behind Li Hongcheng's words. While he didn’t have enough merits to even grade the exams, he would still be hanging around the Imperial College and the Board of Rites.